THE RULES OF ENGAGEMENT: TRYING TO DEFINE THE CURRENT DISCOURSE OF ROMANCE (IN FICTION)

For the last five weeks I’ve been teaching an MA course with the title of ‘Postmodernity: New Sexualities/New Textualities.’ This was originally called ‘The Discourses of Desire,’ a title I much preferred but that was dropped out to include some reference to the confusing idea that we live in postmodern times (they seem to be lasting far too long).

The course includes: Annie E. Proulx’s brilliant “Brokeback Mountain” (and the film by Ang Lee), Sarah Waters’s sparkling Tipping the Velvet (with the BBC adaptation), Nick Hornby’s candidly confessional High Fidelity (film by Stephen Frears), the frustrating romantic comedy by Nancy Meyers Something Gotta Give and the also candidly confessional novel by Rafael Yglesias, A Happy Marriage (see my entry about it on 13-I-2012).

I’m trying to come up with a set of rules that condition the current representation and discourse of desire and love in contemporary romance, based on these texts and others we’ve brought to class (last day we had a great session in which each of us presented a film about love, whether drama or comedy). Here’s the set of rules so far, still much tentative, incomplete and disordered:

*There is a tension between classic romantic narrative and the need to innovate narrative for romance in more ambitious films and novels
*The stories portrayed are, nonetheless, quite close to everyday life, using a sort of low mimetic tone, often with protagonists one is not meant to identify with
*Still, the association of romance with exotic places and characters remains in a few cases
*The fantasy of love at first sight is common
*It is believed that there is one true love for each person (though this can be the final person in a long list)
*Love is presented as a feeling that can last indefinitely if that person is found
*Yet, ironically, couples often assume their relationships might not work or last for long
*Stories often deal with the individual’s difficulties to settle down in a relationship (for fear there might be a better one)
*’Happily ever after’ endings are assumed to be actually temporary
*Marriage is always mentioned, either as a goal or as something to be avoided, though cohabitation is more and more common
*Commitment appears to be a much larger issue than passion, intimacy and even love itself
*In quite a few cases the romantic discourse is attributed to the man, whereas the woman remains more sceptical and even in control
*Male protagonists often review their past by making lists of ex-girlfriends or even visiting them
*The search for happiness in love has been expanded to middle and old age (including coming out of the closet)
*Yet, stories tend to focus on attractive people, mostly young (or young-looking for their age)
*A pre-condition for love (for women) is that they must make themselves as attractive as possible (particularly those around 30, the spinster’s age)
*Love is always accompanied by very good sex; even first sexual encounters appear to be highly satisfactory
*It is assumed that a loss of desire kills love though stories do not explain what happens to desire in a long relationship as people age and bodies lose their attractive (except as excuses for a break-up and the start of a sexier romance)
*Intimacy is insisted on but, apart from sex, romantic candlelit dinners and perhaps going to the cinema or the theatre together, stories do not explain what couples are supposed to do together (or talk about)
*Lovers tend to be shown in isolation from all their other relationships (perhaps with the exception of close families)
*It is taken for granted that all happy couples want children and that marriage must lead to forming families
*Domesticity is hardly ever contemplated
*Men tend to look for more attractive sexual partners, women for more communication, though more and more stories deal with women looking also for younger, more attractive partners (provided the women are beautiful)
*Romance is middle-class, with class differences seldom portrayed (or portrayed as an obstacle in unhappy stories)
*Racial or ethnic differences are always assumed to be problematic
*The inclusion of non-Anglo-Saxon ethnic or racial groups in romance is still very low
*Gender inequality is hardly ever mentioned, unless the story deals specifically with abuse
*The real impact of couple-related abused is ignored or downplayed
*Gay characters are being progressively incorporated in romantic comedy for heterosexuals
*Attractive men may turn out to be bisexual or gay
*Love stories about gay or lesbian couples are only occasionally mainstream and of general interest for heterosexual audiences
*No film or novel has really managed to explain a relationship based on friendship combined with sex –they all end up being about romance
*Tragic endings (the death of a partner) are assumed to be romantic
*A number of films deal with the end of a long, happy relationship by disease or death (Alzheimer’s is creating a kind of sub-genre)

That’s it for now… If you care to add any ideas, they’re very welcome!!

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AN AWKWARD MOMENT AT A CONFERENCE AND HOW TO DEAL WITH IT (MORE OR LESS)

Two weeks ago I attended a conference and I found myself listening to a paper which dealt exactly with the topic of one of my publications (a chapter in a collective volume, four years old). I’d rather not mention which topic as part of the self-censorship that I must apply here, or risk losing the effect of what I’m going to narrate. I spent the twenty minutes of the communication waiting for the gentleman author to refer to my work, without success. Um, I told myself: do I raise a stink and embarrass everyone? Should I do nothing at all? Two other colleagues from my research group were quite vocal in their criticism of the paper presented, and I decided to keep quiet.

Mind you, in other occasions I have indeed behaved in a totally obnoxious way –the most spectacular time was after listening to a paper on Alex Garland’s The Beach. I had just written an article about it (the one in the volume on the New Puritans I wrote about a few weeks ago), and to my surprise this woman scholar gave a paper ignoring not my article (as it was not published) but all the bibliography on Garland. She showed instead in her PowerPoint pictures of scenes in the film adaptation – ‘here you can see that…’, ‘here you can see this….’ I told her as straightforwardly as I could that she should be ashamed of presenting that trash. In more polite but still extremely rude terms (English is quite helpful to do this). I’m not sure whether I lost it or did the right thing. (Others, yes, have been rude to me, but not because I hadn’t done my homework).

So, going back to my anecdote: when I got home I decided to email the gentleman in question and tell him, this time nicely and politely, about my article, which I attached to my message. Oh, my, I thought –this is awkward but, then, what is the point of not telling a fellow scholar about one’s own bibliography? As it turned out, I got a very friendly reply and discovered, to boot, that the gentleman had even reviewed a book in which I have another article (and had quoted one of my books in his PhD dissertation). The exact circumstances regarding which he had missed my article about his own topic of interest sounded plausible enough. So, yes, another linked formed, networking accomplished, despite what could have been quite a misencounter. Buff, what a relief!!

To be honest, my main concern as I listened to him deliver his paper was not that he wasn’t quoting me but that, generally speaking, we, Spanish scholars, don’t quote each other. We do produce a mass of work every year but, I don’t know why, we tend to ignore it. Instead, our ‘work cited’ lists are dominated by the publications of Anglo-American university presses and journals. Perhaps I should say that we do not quote each other, nor anyone else outside these Anglo-American domain (an Italian journal, a Swedish university press book…?). Talk about academic hierarchy.

So, yes, it can well be that someone in the room in a Spanish conference has published something that overlaps 100% with your topic and you don’t know it. I did check the MLA for my own book chapter and it is not there –whether this is Peter Lang’s fault, I cannot say. What seems to be true is that not all we publish reaches the places where researchers look for secondary sources, which leads me back to one of my pet obsessions: we need to make ourselves visible. It an endless task: maintain a personal web, register in the main research portals, send MLA what is missing in your profile and… wait to be found in that bottomless ocean where so many other voices are drowned. I must be my own publicist on top of being teacher, admin worker and researcher. And it’s very tiring work.

So: thank you, my new colleague, for your friendly reply. Next time we meet, we’ll have much to discuss and enjoy together.

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LEARNING ABOUT EMOTION: FOR A LITTLE GIRL

A few months ago I saw with my two little nieces the Disney film Bolt (2008). This is a delicious comedy about a cute dog who, like Jim Carrey in The Truman Show, has no idea that his life is happening in front of hidden cameras. In this particular case, Bolt, a star in a very popular action TV series for kids, believes that he does have superpowers. When by accident he ends up in New York, the complicated trip back to his native California teaches him that his superpowers are fictitious.

Bolt learns to cope gradually with stark reality but when his new friend, the she-cat Mittens, suggests that his owner Penny is just an actress who does not really care for him, that seems a bit too much. Being a Disney film and a comedy to boot, however, it is plain even by mid-film that Bolt will find Penny again and that both will be happily reunited in everlasting friendship, together with Bolt’s new road buddies (the fat hamster Rhino is truly great fun!).

I do love the film, as you can see, and never suspected that it might be the cause for any problem –but it turns out that it was.

My elder niece, aged 8, enjoyed the very funny gags and the whole plotline. The younger, aged 4, seemed, however, much concerned about whether Bolt would meet Penny again –she asked so often that her sister and myself couldn’t help teasing her (nicely!!) about it. This annoyed her a bit but by the time the film ended she was fine and claimed to loved it.

Now, this weekend, months later, she asked to see Bolt again. I that know kids do that all the time, sometimes to their parents’ exasperation (imagine seeing Beauty and the Beast twenty times or more). Also, knowing that she was already familiar with the plot and confident that this time she knew Bolt would enjoy a canine happy-ever-after with Penny, I accepted.

Things were going smoothly until a little scene when Bolt watches Penny embrace his replacement in the series (she’s acting, he doesn’t know this). Bolt, logically, doubts then whether Penny loves him at all. He still ignores, of course, that Penny is very sad that he’s gone and does not like at all the idea of having to act with another dog. My niece took this well but when, a few minutes later, the pair Bolt-Penny are finally reunited for good emotion overtook her and, oh my, this baby can cry!!

After a really long bout of crying, say ten whole minutes, with her aunt (that’s me) trying to comfort her and laugh the whole matter away unsuccessfully, she did manage to explain that she felt “a really big pity.” I explained to her that it was not pity but emotion, as nothing bad happened and all were very happy in the end –no need to worry at all! Now, try to teach a four-year-old the difference between sorrow and emotion… Even though she’s a very sunny girl not at all a cry baby, three hours later she still could not mention the film without crying. Eight hours later, which much fun and many games in between, matters stood the same. I don’t know whether to call her or not (this is thirty hours later) for fear that she’ll cry again.

In contrast, she had a good laugh watching West Side Story with her elder sister. My 8-year-old niece had asked me to see this magnificent musical but ended practically in tears, finding some comfort only in my assurance that Romeo and Juliet has an even worse ending. The four-year-old, finding the romantic tale quite silly, cracked jokes all the time. When a character tells another ‘Your world is rubbish’ she went ‘Ohhhh… you’re going to need a big bin with a big, big lid.’ That’s kids’ humour for you.

You must be thinking that I’m a terrible aunt. To tell the truth, I am indeed concerned about the little one’s overreaction to Bolt, as I didn’t see it coming. If comedy is not safe… I mean, I’d never show her Bambi, if you know what I mean. Now I see myself having a serious woman-to-woman talk before we watch any other film together!!

This little story happens to go exactly in the direction of what is worrying me these days as I re-read the Harry Potter saga: we know next to nothing about the emotion elicited by fiction –whether felt by kids or by adults. At least, I don’t know much which might be of use academically. Our mistrust of sentimentalism is possibly to blame. What my little niece has taught me is that emotion can be really overpowering in unsuspected ways. I just hope next time she is overcome by laughter and not tears.

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LEARNING TO BE LESS AFRAID OF THE NARRATOR…

This post is, particularly, for our second-year Victorian Literature students who must be this week hurrying up to finish their paper proposals and thus meet the 18th November deadline. They have been asked to write a paper (1,500 words with three secondary sources) on the narrator(s) in either Oliver Twist or The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. I know from experience that this is for them quite a difficult task as understanding the role of the narrator presents many problems at this stage of their Literary education.

This is because too often fiction is taught as if only the plot and the diverse themes each text deals with mattered, that is, as if how the text in question is built mattered less (or nothing). This is by no means the case. Actually, learning how s story is narrated is a top priority for any aspiring writer and it should be similarly important for university-trained readers.

I’m going to do something a bit odd here, basically recycle my article “The Narrator as Threshold Concept: Comparing Charles Dickens’s Oliver Twist and Friedrich Engels’s The Condition of the English Working Classes in 1844” (in Reading Between the Lines: Discussing Narration in the Literature Class, eds. A. Monnickendam, D. Owen and C. Pividori, 2013 –see my website for the complete text). This article describes the experiment I ran last year by which I invited my previous Victorian Literature students to become aware of the narrator’s role comparing not two novels but a novel and an essay. It worked nicely but not without contradictions, as I ended up developing a set of exercises that I have finally not used again, afraid that they were too ‘secondary school.’

Anyway, as I explained in the introductory segment, Jan Meyer and Ray Land have changed the face of higher education pedagogy by developing their ‘Threshold Theory.’ Their idea is that students necessarily encounter ‘threshold concepts,’ that is, portals that open “a new and previously inaccessible way of thinking about something” (2003: 2). They only mention ‘signification’ (2003: 3) and ‘irony’ (2005: 374) as threshold concepts in Literature.

Gina Wisker offers a longer list (2008: 13), including the social context and construction of texts and language, intertextuality, the reading process and critical literacy, representation and signification, ideology, and enquiry and research. Together with Gillian Robinson, she explains that Literature students too often believe that “art is the copy of the real world” (2009: 323). If you put two and two together, you can easily see that a major threshold concept students need to grasp is the narrator’s role as the lynchpin around which art (=Literature) offers a particular representation of the real world. Funny how that is not included in Wisker’s list, which does include much more sophisticated items –or maybe that’s why. We tend to overlook the obvious.

Students were quick to get the idea that the person called Charles Dickens is a much more complex entity than the author Charles Dickens, and also to understand that the narrator in Oliver Twist is a mask (or series of) that author-Dickens assumes. In Brontë’s case it is perhaps easier to understand that the narrator is not the author, much less the real Anne Brontë, as she chose to narrate The Tenant of Wildfell Hall through two fictional characters: a man (Gilbert) and a woman (Helen). So, last year we got a very nice crop of papers dealing with the narrator, although it took a while to refine the proposals into workable, adequate foundations. I have checked the post I wrote back in February: only 6 out of 48 papers were a fail. Good!

Now we’re back to square one, logically, as classes are new no matter how old the experience of the teacher is. I got this question: can I discuss motherhood in Brontë’s novel? No –you can discuss how motherhood affects Helen as a narrator in the later part of her diary. Or: can I discuss alcohol in Brontë’s novel? No –you can discuss how fear of alcoholism conditions the opinions voiced by the female narrator, Helen. In Dickens’s case, you may contradict Karin Lesnik-Oberstein’s theory that this is the narrator’s tale (and not Oliver’s), perhaps explain that narrator-Dickens seems to be a variety of narrators in this text and not a unified construction (hence the inconsistency between sentimentality and the harsh social critique). And so on…

Students’ difficulties are complicated to manage, as one feels tempted to change tack, abandon the idea of the narrator and go back to the more habitual approach. Oh, yes, let’s discuss motherhood, alcoholism, the workhouse, the justice system. Yet, those very same difficulties seem to confirm that it’s in matters like this (yes, the narrator’s role or any other ‘threshold concept’) that students need to work. And teachers, indeed.

I miss more and more a subject which teaches us all the basics of storytelling from a writer’s perspective –not necessarily creative writing, or literary theory (narratology included). I mean, rather, a practical subject that would put students and teachers before the blank page and forced us to make the authorial decisions that result in this or that narrator. Wishful thinking, of course, given the rigidity of our degree structures.

My sources:
Meyer, Jan and Land, Ray 2003: ‘Threshold Concepts and Troublesome Knowledge: Linkages to Ways of Thinking and Practising within the Disciplines’. Enhancing Teaching-Learning Environments in Undergraduate Courses, http://www.tla.ed.ac.uk/etl/docs/ETLreport4.pdf
——— 2005: ‘Threshold Concepts and Troublesome Knowledge (2): Epistemological Considerations and a Conceptual Framework for Teaching and Learning’. Higher Education 49: 373-388.
Wisker, Gina August 2008: ‘Connotations and Conjunctions: Threshold Concepts, Curriculum Development, and the Cohesion of English Studies’ (report). The Higher Education Academy: English Subject Centre, http://www.english.heacademy.ac.uk/explore/projects/archive/general/gen2.php
——— & Gillian Robinson 2009: ‘Encouraging Postgraduate Students of Literature and Art to Cross Conceptual Thresholds’. Innovations in Education and Teaching International 46:3: 317- 330.

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DEFINING LITERARY GENERATIONS: THE CASE OF THE NEW PURITANS

Back in 2001, Nicholas Blincoe and Matt Thorne edited an anthology of short fiction, All Hail the New Puritans, which aimed at defining a new literary school. This, basically, applied the minimalist principles of the Dogme 95 film movement to prose fiction, as stated in the (controversial) manifesto that opens the collection. A few years ago, my colleague José Francisco Fernández Sánchez of the University of Almería had the brilliant idea of checking on that project to see how the anthology and the contributors had fared.

I invited myself (thanks Jose!) to contribute a chapter on Alex Garland, not only because I love The Beach but also because I find his drifting into screen writing a very significant career move, hinting at the increasing loss of weight of the novel in our times. The volume just published, The New Puritan Generation (Gylphi, 2013), deals in the end not just with Blincoe and Thorne’s quite unsuccessful bid to build a new avant-garde but with the enormous difficulties of trying to make historical and critical sense of the constant flow of writers in any particular literature.

The New Puritan Generation is, to begin with, a misnomer as there is no such thing. The original anthology acted as a meeting point for a series of young writers (Geoff Dyer was the oldest) who have had very different careers. The chapters which assess the quality of the stories collected by Blincoe and Thorne offer a quite negative view of what was achieved then (David Owen does a particularly fine demolition job of the whole endeavour). This, to begin with, shows that literary manifestos have a very dubious utility, as they seem to curtail rather than encourage creativity.

The other chapters which, like mine on Garland, assess the individual careers of writers such as Scarlett Thomas or Toby Litt, may elicit feelings of perplexity. I’m thinking that perhaps the generation of British writers born in the 1960s are not the ‘new puritans’ but the ‘mixed reviews crowd.’ Let me explain: Garland is a different case, as, basically, he has stopped writing fiction and become a full-time screen writer. Litt, in contrast, has 10 books under his belt; Scarlett Thomas has 8 under hers. I tried to read Litt’s deadkidsongs but, frankly, could not finish it and my memory of his lecture at the AEDEAN Almería conference is not particularly happy. As for Thomas, well, I’m not familiar with any of her novels –nor was I aware that I should be. Readings the chapters by my colleagues and checking the internet, I get the impression that writers of this generation are ambitious, bold enough to combine in their books a myriad ideas but not that good at generating solid novels, much less masterpieces.

I’ll try once more: the thrones occupied since the 1980s by Rushdie, Amis, Ishiguro, Kureishi, Barnes, McEwan, etc. still seem to be theirs. Despite Granta’s efforts (see my post for 23-IV-2013) to find bright young things something –a mysterious X factor– is preventing them from reaching the heights that the older colleagues reached 30 years ago.

Something I noticed is that my colleagues are more enthusiastic about Litt’s and Thomas’s novels (and other writers in the Puritan generation) than the readers. As I read their presentations of each work, I sorely missed what I can only call ‘critical judgement.’ This is more and more common: someone spends 10 pages analysing a book (or a film) in minute detail, often in very clever ways, but it’s hard for me to say whether they find the text in question ‘good’ (= worth reading and memorable). When I turn to Amazon or similar to check whether I should invest my scarce time on this book or that, the judgement readers pass turns out to be much harsher. An Amazon reader writes of Litt’s deadkidsongs that “the ideas are smart, but his execution just creates confusion and boredom.” This is exactly the impression I was getting but it’s not the kind of judgement that I see in current academic work.

So, yes, there are two lines of thought mixed here: one is that contemporary (British) writers seem to deliver all the time less than promised (hence the ‘mixed reviews generation’) and the other is that we academics are not producing criticism but analysis –I’m not sure why. The other line of thought is that as I read The New Puritan Generation I felt increasingly confused about how we have made historical sense so far of Literature. I don’t know whether in the smaller literary world of the past literary generations did exist in a more homogeneous way which is impossible to reproduce today in the overcrowded world of fiction, or whether the groupings are an invention of the critics. If the ‘new Puritans’ do not really exist, except in the title of the original collection and the new book, then, do the ‘Romantics’ or the ‘Modernists’ exist?

What is more, and this why I wanted to discuss Garland, what will happen when writers themselves realise that, like Garland’s protagonist Richard, we’ll soon have published authors lacking a literary education? It does feel like the end of an era and, somehow, it seems to me that the ‘mixed review generation’ is withdrawing into solipsism rather than address this huge issue…

Um, do have a look at The New Puritan Generation, see what you think.

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RE-READING: THE BOTTOMLESS PIT

As I age I understand less and less the mechanism by which some stories are instantly embedded in our brains and other pass through leaving no trace. I keep lists of the books that I read and the films that I see like Japanese tourists who take photos of everything to fix the memories of their sightseeing. I imagine that, as happens to me, they must be often mystified looking at pictures of places they don’t remember having seen at all.

My spotty memory might be also conditioned by the quantity of stories I consume –I have the feeling that my brain can only store so many (the hard disk capacity seems limited) and that as more come in, a selective process is triggered by which the less relevant to me are forgotten (or filed away in a corner I can’t access). Perhaps assuming that total recall of stories will work after years or decades is simply unrealistic.

Re-reading (or re-seeing in the case of films) is, obviously, crucial to fix some plots in our memories. I find that the third re-reading is the one after which the text stays put. I also find, however, that there is a very tricky aspect to re-reading: the text never stays the same. Actually, the more one reads the more blurry it becomes (when will I be done with Wuthering Heights, I wonder?)

In Film Adaptation theory one of the basic tenets is that we, adult human beings, prefer being retold stories we enjoy in slightly different ways –kids, as we know, like exact verbatim repetitions. This is why even readers who already know a particular story will pay to see the screen adaptation. Re-reading is, arguably, something we tend to avoid, or something we postpone for years and even decades after the original experience, which in practice means that the second reading is almost brand new.

We, teachers and researchers of Literature, are in quite a different position for we need to re-read frequently, sometimes once a year, the texts we teach. To this we add the re-readings for research, either of a single volume or of the complete works of an author (my re-reading this summer Iain M. Banks’ SF). I’m now re-reading the Harry Potter series for the third time around, wondering whether there will be a fourth time, hence this post.

The text, I was saying, never stays the same. Sometimes to our embarrassment. It’s taken me four readings of The Tenant of Wildfell Hall to realise that Gilbert’s narrative, although produced twenty years after the events, offers not a single comment on that past from the perspective of the present (in hindsight). My students were particularly interested in chapter 14, in which Gilbert attacks Frederick Lawrence in a fit of jealousy and justifies at least three times his appalling action. I never realised until last week that he does so without a single shred of remorse, not even twenty years after the events –also that he tells his good friend Halford what he’s never told his wife. Did Anne Brontë want exactly this?

I can start using metaphors here: novels (and films) are, as Henry James noted, baggy monster and they sprout tentacles all the time. Or, reading is peeling the layers of a gigantic onion (with no centre, let’s not forget we’re post post-modern). Re-reading is unveiling in the literal sense of taking off what prevents you from fully seeing (until the next veil is noticed). Or treading treacle that becomes less viscous. Re-reading is also, of course, facing again events we know very well but that we want to enjoy this time in the full knowledge of what is coming (Ada and Inman’s meeting in Cold Mountain comes to mind). Or that we dread –yes, Sirius Black’s death. There are only so many times one can mourn a character before starting to hate the author.

Logically, novels have too many words for us to retain them integrally in our memories, films too many images. Re-reading (or re-seeing) I’m puzzled by how some passages stick out immediately and with others it is as if they never existed to begin with. Also by how at a different times it is the other way round –this is why we never stop making discoveries that for other readers are obvious. Good research consists, yes, of coming up with the new angles about the text that change other (or most) readers’ perceptions.

I really wanted to write about what happens to emotion in re-reading. Why I cry myself silly every time I see Baz Luhrman’s film version of Romeo and Juliet, although I know very well what’s coming –and I don’t buy this tragic view of love! Why I cringe every time Marlow comes across Kurtz on all fours and tells him he will be lost –and I don’t even believe we have souls! But then emotion seems to be a dirty word in literary criticism. Or I’m in the grip of emotion too big to make sense of it today, though I’m trying.

So much we don’t know about how we read…

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